Spotlight on a Masterpiece: Van Gogh's Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear

In the first in a new series of posts, we’ll be uncovering the history, stories and trivia behind masterpieces in The Courtauld’s permanent collection.

This month we are looking at Vincent van Gogh’s Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear

The artist Paul Gauguin joined van Gogh in the town of Arles in November 1888, to paint together in what van Gogh called the ‘studio of the south’, but they quickly started to quarrel.

Van Gogh had hoped to set up a thriving community of like-minded artists, of which he and Gauguin would be the first.

After an argument with Gauguin in December 1888, van Gogh famously mutilated his ear.

This disagreement signalled the end of van Gogh’s dream, and his disappointment is evident in this stark self-portrait; one of the first paintings he produced after his release from hospital in January 1889.

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889 © The Courtauld Gallery, London

Van Gogh’s disagreement with Gauguin was grounded on a dispute over whether the artist should work from nature or from the imagination.

Gauguin felt that an over-reliance on the external world marked a lack of creativity, whilst van Gogh drew rich meanings from his observation of nature.

This particular painting is clearly grounded in observation with the subject illuminated by clear daylight and exposed by contrasting colours and textures, and in this way it differs greatly from Gauguin’s simplified and abstract technique.

Notice the almost blank canvas to the left contrasted against the vibrant Japanese colour print to the right.

Coupled with the prominent bandage over the artist’s ear, this contrast seems to suggest a present fear of creative drought compared with hopeful dreams of the past.

It’s also worth noting that the colours you see today are in fact different from the colours that van Gogh originally chose.

Research at The Courtauld has revealed that the paints used by the artist were so cheap that their colour has gradually changed over the years.